August 2011


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Talking about Religion after Norway

Julie Clawson

The recent tragedy in Norway, the worst attack the country has experienced since World War II, shocked and pained the world. It has also forced us as a global community to look more closely at religion, identity and how we see the “other”—as well as ourselves.

In the West, religion is often an uncomfortable topic of discussion, and the recent terror attacks in Norway have forced many of us, especially in the United States and Europe, to re-examine issues of religion and identity.

Thus, how do we talk about religion after Norway?

In the early responses to terror attacks, blame has been quickly assigned to Muslims. Once it was revealed that the perpetrator in Norway, Anders Breivik, was actually an anti-Muslim, right-wing extremist who self-identified as Christian, the proclivity to blame his actions on religious fundamentalism quickly vanished. It’s easy to point to the hypocrisy—to criticize people for their inclination to assume Islam promotes violence while at the same time being quick to wash Christianity’s collective hands of any hint of wrongdoing.

Pointing fingers though merely addresses the symptoms and not the actual problem of a worldview that chooses to view “the other” from a position of fear instead of love; and to address this problem, no matter how uncomfortable, religion must be part of the conversation.

Our religion, or lack thereof, shapes who each of us are and how we function in the world. When we believe in an idea, faith expression or sacred text, these beliefs form our very identity, influencing everything from our politics to our relationships. For many people, these beliefs are what give us hope that a better world is possible—a world where fear does not reign and where compassion and service drive our actions instead.

Yet religious identity can also influence people to commit acts of violence and hatred. Common to fundamentalists of any religion are fear-based attempts at control. By insisting upon being right at all costs, they reject the Christian discipline of trusting in God, or the Muslim call to submit to Him.

For those, however, who allow themselves to be formed in ways that respond to “the other” with love instead of fear, religion grants the means to build a better world. Orienting oneself around the needs of others strengthens the common good instead of selfish individual desires. Reclaiming love of one’s neighbor as a religious tenet, and not merely a political mandate, is therefore a necessary step in addressing the corruption of religion by fundamentalisms.

As a person of faith, I see this “lived out” faith looking like the response of Hege Dalen and her partner, Toril Hansen, to the attacks. When they heard screams and gunshots from their campsite opposite Utöyan Island, they immediately hopped in their boat and dodged bullets in order to save some 40 people. We can’t all be heroes, but choosing a life of helping those in need, no matter who they are, is the basis of any religion that would rather build than destroy. Speaking up about the religious values that motivate us to reach out, and being willing to listen to those who do the same but who come from other traditions, can help change the way our cultures view religion.

Talking about religion after Norway means not letting fear define what faith is all about. Examining our own beliefs and living out our faith through selfless acts of love can move the conversation past the toxicity of fear.

Deliberate attempts to understand religion, uncomfortable as it may be, must be part of the path forward. Engage in conversation or read a book by someone who is “other” to yourself. Partner with people of other beliefs on relief or community development projects to understand how our different faiths motivate the same generous actions and join in honest discussions about our differences to discover what we can learn from each other.

Living in secular societies does not mean ignoring our religion. Instead, we can choose to use that part of our identities to build a better world.

* Julie Clawson ( is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. She lives in the United States in Austin, Texas. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: CGNews, Aug. 2, 2011, <>.
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